Standard approaches won’t always work on public ground. Success often hinges on the details that many hunters overlook or strategies they refuse to embrace. Several of my best public-land hunts through the years illustrate that reality. Here’s why these particular hunts succeeded.
1. The Big Walk
For years, my buddies and I joked that federal waterfowl production areas in the Dakotas were usually devoid of ducks. Boot leather crushed that misconception.
One October, my go-to private spots were worn out and I needed to find ducks to hunt on the final day of our trip. Poring over satellite maps on my phone, I found some dandy-looking sloughs almost a mile deep into federal property. With nothing to lose, I laced up a pair of boots and went to take a look.
But I didn’t make it all the way to the slough, as a cloud of almost 300 ducks rose from the water when I crested a nearby hill. The next morning, my dad and I shot a multi-species limit in less time than it took to walk in and get out.
Why it worked: I expended extra physical effort. Many guys would balk at walking that far to glass a slough, especially on a whim. But it worked, and we got a heck of a workout, not to mention full limits, as a bonus.
2. The Chatty Guide
My eyes lit up when I saw the loaded North Dakota pothole, but my heart sank when the landowner I asked about it said no.
“I guide hunters,” he said. “I’m saving that one for some clients next week.”
But he was friendly and liked to chat, so I stayed a while to talk about ducks and what he’d seen around the area. After about 10 minutes, he must have figured I was harmless and mentioned a public area five miles away that was holding lots of birds. In fact, he drew me a map.
Two buddies and I hunted there the next day, taking 18 ducks in an epic shoot. The guide sure knew his stuff.
Why it worked: The guide spoon-fed me a hotspot. And that wouldn’t have happened if I had stormed off instead of shooting the breeze with him. It often pays to establish personal connections with like-minded folks.
3. The Best Day
In December, I wrote about a layout hunt in which three friends and I took 24 divers, 20 of which were drakes, in less than four hours. As 30-year veterans of the open-water game, we were set up to take advantage of a good situation. But the impetus behind the hunt went deeper.
We hadn’t scouted that area for weeks before that hunt, as it’s more than an hour from where we live, directly across a large lake. We’d checked out the landing many times during previous seasons, however, and had hunted the spot once or twice years earlier. So when the wind direction that day mandated we hunt the less-familiar part of the lake, we still knew where to go and how to set up.
Why it worked: Investigation and an open mind can reveal many backup hunting options. Some might only work during certain situations. Others might never pan out. But you should always seek potential opportunities and plan ahead to make them work when the time comes.
4. The What-If Hunt
With three weeks left in the 2014 season, an early freeze locked most nearby waters in ice. Unable to hunt local marshes and lakes, I researched public areas with spring seeps or creeks in the hopes of finding open water. Several follow-up visits yielded nothing, but a short walk at a public hunting area an hour from home revealed 50 mallards and black ducks on a spring-fed slough. Several of those birds returned home with me the next morning, and I go back to that area every year during ice-up.
Why it worked: Curiosity and persistence. Most hunters would never consider looking for ducks at that seemingly insignificant property, even though it borders a major highway. But that wild idea has paid dividends in green many times over.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.